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May 5, 2008 | by  | in Opinion |
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Victorian Theses

Former Salient Films Editor Brannavan Gnanalingam is writing his master’s thesis in film on the role of race in the critical reception of two texts from the late 80s, Do the Right Thing, a film by Spike Lee, and the album Straight Outta Compton by NWA.

Gnanalingam notes that almost every review (out of around 30 for each text) notes that the artist is black, and is looking into what that means.

“Spike Lee is always mentioned as a ‘black film-maker’, he’s never mentioned simply as a film-maker. Whereas [people] like Alfred Hitchcock or Martin Scorcese are just film-makers, they’re never called ‘white film-makers’. So I’m looking at the historical framework as to what ‘black’ means in America, and looking at the stereotypes that have been around since … the 15th Century, and I’m tying these reviews to the stereotypes.”

Gnanalingam observes that Do the Right Thing was criticised in relation to the final scene for the promotion of mob violence, but it was also slammed for not offering any solutions, and even for not being ‘real’ enough, with the streets being too clean and graffiti-free, and containing no mention of drugs. Gnanalingam suggests that this is because the reviewers are themselves imposing onto the film their own beliefs and biases about what it ‘means to be black’.

“Basically no matter what Spike Lee intended, he’s always going to be read within this framework of what it means to be black.”

“But I’m also arguing that Spike Lee believes the framework too, that he believes himself to be black … and identifies himself with people who are living in the so-called ‘ghetto’, despite the fact that he’s a middle-class, university-educated Hollywood film director. And so he calls himself a black filmmaker as well, and so I’m looking at what that means, and whether he’s submitting to these discourses himself.”

“It’s all very Foucault,” Gnanalingam smiles.

Gnanalingam is applying the same kind of analysis to NWA. He has noticed that there were no reviews of Straight Outta Compton from major news sources when the album was first released. There are however discussions of NWA themselves, “and how NWA are going to cause black mob riots, how they’re really violent, how the lyrics are really sexist and homophobic,” and essentially scaremongering of the effect gangsta rap would have on America. He is trying to find out to what extent these feelings dissuaded reviewers from treating Straight Outta Compton as though it were any other album, noting also that at the time hip hop was not treated as a serious musical genre.

In his analysis of race and black identity, Gnanalingam is invoking the Orientalist arguments of Edward Said – where a non-European ‘other’ comes to accept the label applied upon them by Europeans, and come to identify themselves as the other – in his analysis of black identity.

So far he has noticed extraordinary similarities in the reviews, for example every review of Do the Right Thing mentions Lee as black film-maker, and most deem his approach to race relations as very controversial, even where they are otherwise very positive reviews. Gnanalingam has been looking for common themes, what is known as ‘structural absences’ (where important information is lacking), and in particular what words are repeated in multiple reviews.

Gnanalingam has been motivated in the choice of his thesis out of an interest in minority representation. Although he chose these two texts because they exemplify the trend to associate the art with a single characteristic of the artist, he feels his work could apply equally to any minority. For example, the identification of an artist as a ‘female artist’, or an ‘Islamic artist’. He chose Do the Right Thing having tutored a blaxploitation paper and Straight Outta Compton from a love of pop-culture, knowing that both were very controversial upon their release.

“I just love popular culture,” explains Gnanalingam, “and that’s kind of the reason why I wanted to do it. It’s often neglected in academic studies. People seem to think that a particular excerpt of The Fairy Queen is deemed worthy of academic study, but something like NWA aren’t. And I’m unconvinced by that.”

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  1. Gibbon says:

    What are your thoughts about white basketballers in the NBA being descibed as such?

    Isn’t this identification simply stressing a noteworthy detail about such a person in a sector where his or her particular trait is underrepresented?
    Gib

  2. Brannavan says:

    I guess I’m looking at what happens when people (and it might be innocently) stress a cultural label alongside a person’s name, because what it tends to do according to my research is reduce that person simply down to that cultural label.

    Sure, a white basketball player does have his race foregrounded due to his minority status in the NBA. However, you’ll struggle to convince me that “white-ness” carries the same negative connotations in general that “black-ness” does. What I’m showing in my thesis that a “black” filmmaker or musician artistic output gets judged by the very same negative stereotypes that caused the underrepresentation in the first place (perhaps that doesn’t occur with “white” NBA players). And the very same stereotypes that were used to justify slavery, segregation, lynching, structural inequality for centuries.

    I’m also critiquing the idea that “race” is noteworthy. Scientifically race is a very dodgy concept, culturally it’s a constructed concept (ignores diversity, assumes all white or black people are the same, assumes all white or black people have a shared history, shared socio-economic position, shared geographical location etc.). Why are both Obama and his wife called “black”, when Obama’s father is Kenyan/his mother is white and Obama’s wife’s forefathers were slaves? Totally different backgrounds, yet essentialised under one problematic label.

    When it is perceived as noteworthy, then it seems to structure the way people perceive the text/person in the first place. Or so my research has found.

    But I don’t have any answers, hell I’m a post-grad arts student, we don’t have answers to anything.

  3. ese says:

    “But I’m also arguing that Spike Lee believes the framework too, that he believes himself to be black … and identifies himself with people who are living in the so-called ‘ghetto’, despite the fact that he’s a middle-class, university-educated Hollywood film director. And so he calls himself a black filmmaker as well, and so I’m looking at what that means, and whether he’s submitting to these discourses himself.”

    How can you prove that he ‘believes’ he is black, in the sense that you intend it? I mean not just that he says he is black (in an interview, say) but that he ‘believes’ it?

  4. brannavan says:

    I have much more room in a thesis to attempt to prove this (theory while dry in an internet post, is sexy in an essay), but he’s constantly saying that he’s “black” in interviews, makes movies about “blacks” and “black issues”, tries to challenge dominant stereotypes of ‘blacks” in movies (e.g. She’s Gotta Have It, Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, She Hate Me, Bamboozled etc. etc.), publicly challenges “white’ directors who make movies about “black” people/or for ignoring “black” stories (e.g. Clint Eastwood, Norman Jewison), went nuts at Cannes when Do the Right Thing didn’t win the Palme D’Or by accusing the jury of “racism”, almost got kicked out of uni for a race relations themed film he made, his production company is named after a failed promise by the US Government to freed slaves, etc. etc. etc.

    I reckon he believes he’s black…

  5. Karl Bronstein says:

    You just got taken to school ese, ouch.

  6. ese says:

    Shut up Bronstein. What I am getting at is that this notion of a discourse may not be universally agreed upon or understood. Even with this evidence, it is not possible to say that you know what Lee believes with regard to himself. His understanding of his own identity may be altogether separate from your understanding of his understanding of his identity.

    I understand you as saying that Spike Lee operates within a discourse and even identifies himself as a term within that discourse. Let’s have a look at this quote though:

    “But I’m also arguing that Spike Lee believes the framework too, that he believes himself to be black … and identifies himself with people who are living in the so-called ‘ghetto’, despite the fact that he’s a middle-class, university-educated Hollywood film director.”

    That is more or less a statement of how you understand Spike Lee. It is a little odd because it says Spike Lee is two different people, the person he believes himself to be and the person you believe him to be. I take you as implying that Spike Lee’s place in the discourse of [race] is at odds with his place in the discourse of [class].

    Anyway, I take issue with this idea that you are capable of knowing what Spike Lee ‘believes’, because the only way of accessing such information is by constructing an image of Spike Lee based on materials such as his interviews and his challenging of directors as well as readings of his films. These materials/texts could be given different readings and Spike Lee’s subjective understanding of himself may still be outside of your ken.

    I might go further to say that Spike Lee’s understanding of these discourses may be different from your understanding of them because he is from the US. Have you considered that these discourses might be modified differently between cultures? Which cultural perspective are you assuming?

  7. Sid says:

    Daymn someone who messes wit Brannavan must carry their balls in a wheelbarrow

  8. brannavan says:

    Hi Ese,

    Thanks for your feedback and they are fair criticisms (I’ll suggest some of my theoretical background here, but I do have 40,000 words to explore this) – you’re right, the “subjectivity” of Lee that I’m constructing is purely speculative, and an acknowledged flaw of my thesis is that it is almost impossible to divine Lee’s subjectivity (but then that’s also a flaw of Althusser – I don’t buy his psychoanalytic approach to get around this – Foucault, Said, Hall etc. many of the cultural theorists that I’m using). I’m yet to find an approach that convinces me enough of how subjectivity is constructed (but then again, I’m not sure if that’s even possible to figure out, especially empirically). Also I don’t think identity is fixed, so again it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact identity (and there is a difference between an identity constructed by someone, and constructed for someone by someone else, neither of which are unitary). So yep, these are flaws I’ll be explaining in my conclusion (and have worked through in my first chapter).

    However, I’m not pretending that I know Spike Lee in my thesis, and I don’t think class is at odds with race (they’re both irrelevant really in summing up an individual). Maybe he views himself in a classist, or a gendered way, or whatever, I don’t really care – however, what I’m interested in my thesis is how Spike Lee continually and almost unanimously is placed into a racialised discourse by people who judge his work (as opposed to a class, gender, socio-economic etc. discourse), and therefore finds himself reacting accordingly (in his films, interviews etc.). He finds himself responding to the stereotypes, and constructs his films in ways that allow people to read them in these particular ways (even if he intended to or not)

    I just suggested his class, educational background and occupation as other ways of constructing him – they’re by no means fixed or can sum up Lee at all either, and I’m arguing there is no one way of summing up an individual (there’s problems with essentialising class, occupation, education etc. etc. anyway just as there is with race).

    As for cultural perspective, I’m not sure if there is a “proper” one to take – is there a proper US approach to analyse race? Isn’t that just as problematic as the concept of race?

    Anyways, thanks for your feedback, and feel free to critique further

  9. ese says:

    Thanks for responding.

    re q: I’m not suggesting there’s a “proper” perspective to take, but drawing your attention to the potential differences in viewing the putatively similar race discourse through different cultural lenses.

    I’m guessing you’ve looked at Homi Bhabha – mimicry may be interesting in terms of the possibly subversive role you see Lee as occupying in relation to a discourse of race.

    For an interesting take on intersubjectivity/historical construction you might look at Jerome McGann or Mikhail Bakhtin.

  10. brannavan says:

    Thanks! I’ve used Bhabha, and I’ve looked at Bakhtin a bit too. I’ll check out McGann/Bakhtin in relation to intersubjectivity though. Cheers for the tip

    As for different cultural lenses, sure there are differences between what a New Zealander might see and what a US person might see, but I’ve tried not to over-complicate the thesis by critiquing myself as a reader too – which is certainly another criticism, but I do acknowledge that my take is an interpretation too (just like the reviewers, Lee, N.W.A. etc).

  11. subaltern says:

    Hi Brannavan,

    I take your point above (that different cultural lenses exist, that you want to maintain a cogent focus), but wondered if, especially given that you say that you’re drawing on constructions of ‘blackness’ in US historical context, whether a reinvestigation that neglects or removes the interpretive position of the critic (by which I mean, yourself) is going to be the way to go. Sure, I agree, you don’t want to overcomplicate your discussion by continuously adding disclaimers for your position, but being reflexive as to your critical viewpoint would seem rather important as US cultural politics really are a very particular discourse.

    I’m thinking this specifically because of a couple of things that occurred to me in the discussion above (which may well be dealt with in more nuanced fashion in the thesis, such is the nature of trying to cram much longer ideas into a small discussion). While I take your point that Lee is portrayed by others as ‘a black filmmaker’, and I do agree that in general parlance ‘white filmmaker’ might not necessarily have the same rhetorical charge, if you refer to a filmmaker as ‘a WASP filmmaker’ here in the US, there is a type of positioning going on that whilst it might not be as pejorative, is certainly just as limiting or at least as categorical. The bizarre discussions falling out of the election campaign here (Hillary’s WASP conspiracy, the Clinton ‘dynasty’ argument) are good bookends to the way things play out. There’s a close relationship between Lee’s own statements on his behalf and his marketing, which have tended to emphasise his ‘blackness’ since early on, so there may be some room for some materialist enquiry here, if you’re not doing some already? Really up to you if it’s at all helpful.

    Leaving that aside, I wonder if what you’re driving at in your earlier postings is that subjectivity, on the whole, is really not quite the point, and perhaps even somewhat irrelevant? It’s not so much that there are different ‘Spike Selves’ so much as that what you’re looking at is the Spike of the public domain, isn’t it? Really, it’s the issue of what’s being constructed as a performed identity and public persona, the reactions to that, the way it colours the work and its reception, etc. There’s some good work floating around in performance studies that might prove of interest.

    As an interesting throwaway, the current kerfuffle over here, where Lee (rightly) took Eastwood to task not just for his artistic work, but for a simplistic misunderstanding of Lee’s critique, in turn launched its own very interesting critique, where Lee was taken to task by other groups for parsing the boundaries of what he deemed to constitute diverse representational practices, while these groups charged him with presenting caricatured versions of other ethnicities – it’s worth a look as an ongoing discussion. May not necessarily be helpful for your argument but it’s an interesting tangent nonetheless.

  12. brannavan says:

    Hi Subaltern

    You’re probably right about needing to be reflexive, and is something I’ll be acknowledging in my conclusion at the very least (but I won’t have the chance to properly explain it all away). I have found through my research though to complicate a US-focus is that the US stereotypes/discursive framework came as much from the slave trading nations/Enlightenment/Darwinism as they did from within the US – in many respects the US were continuing a framework that the British etc. had set up, and then historically that continued to change over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries.

    Ese’s points about subjectivity were definitely things that I’ve been trying to grapple with myself, however, you’re right, I am looking at Lee in the public domain. But then there are issues over me trying to construct the Lee in the public domain, because as Ese writes, that’s a construction/interpretation too.

    The idea of performance is certainly one I’m looking at too – I think N.W.A. in particular (but Lee too) demonstrate this kind of public persona, this construction of race as performed identity.

    I absolutely agree with your point about a WASP filmmaker too – my thesis is hopefully a springboard for future analysis of other labels – the same thing happens with “female” artists, or “queer” artists, or Catholic/Muslim/Maori etc. etc.. Hilary Clinton also seemed to not be able to escape the gender label being strung around her (and she placed herself into it too) throughout the primary campaign, which was fascinating. My framework by no means is limited to blackness.

    I’ve been watching this Lee vs Eastwood debate with interest too. (How could you not with all the smack-talking going on).

  13. Gosh could you people just write your own theses?

  14. subaltern says:

    I can’t speak for any of the others, but I already have, Laura. I learned along the way that it really doesn’t take too much effort to reach out to others, discuss and share ideas as they research, too. Probably only a little more effort than it took to make your post?

  15. brannavan says:

    Well Laura I’ll raise your concern in my conclusion too.

    Thank you subaltern for your feedback – much appreciated

  16. Why make an effort to post on Salient? I’m one of about four people (all of whom are actually Conrad Reyners by any other name) who read this shit.

    Bran: YUS my concern was worthwhile!

  17. Brannavan says:

    My guess was this column was partly designed to allow people to comment on other post-grads’ theses in an academic way, and offer their opinions in a forum that may never have existed otherwise. Maybe I got comments because I’m writing about sexy things like film and gangsta’ rap? I’ve certainly found it useful (so thank you Salient for helping with my thesis).

    And, surely comments here are better than people continuing to comment on the dead-horse that is my Sue Bradford “article”…

  18. ese says:

    Laura you are nothjing but a troll

  19. subaltern says:

    Laura, if no one else read it except for Brannavan, I suspect that none of us would be especially bothered. In fact, it’s kind of the point. I’m not quite sure why it bothers you or what you find difficult to understand about this.

  20. ese says:

    Laura, the world is turning on you. Ur time in the sun is over

  21. Lol. Trolls have great hair! Subaltern, you lost me some time ago. I only comment on this site to be a dick in my (excessive) spare time. Chill guys!

  22. ese says:

    new troll here

  23. Matthew_Cunningham says:

    ese – line from Warcraft 2 = nice!

  24. “Why make an effort to post on Salient? I’m one of about four people (all of whom are actually Conrad Reyners by any other name) who read this shit.”

    Hey :(

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